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Charles Jones: Gardener and Photographer

In the Garden Museum Journal No.38, our archivist Rosie Vizor tells the story of Elphick & Son Ltd., ‘Seedsmen of Lewes’. Once frequented by Duncan Grant and Leonard Woolf, Elphick’s was a famous garden supplies business, proudly run by five generations of the Elphick family over 180 years. Tony Elphick, the final owner of the firm and also a Life Friend of the Garden Museum, generously donated this archive to the Museum for posterity after the shop closed down in 2003.

One of the prizes within the Elphick’s archive is a collection of photographs annotated ‘C.J.’ These are by a forgotten genius of horticultural photography, Charles Harry Jones. Born in Wolverhampton in 1866, Jones was a gifted professional gardener who worked at several private estates, before turning his hand to photography.

From about 1893 he is recorded as being Head Gardener at [Great] Ote Hall near Burgess Hill in Sussex, which had been tenanted to Herbert Woods Esq by the owner, Major-Gen Richard Temple Godman.

Jones married Harriett Meadows (b.1869) on 22nd April 1894 at Dunsby, near Bourne in Lincolnshire, where her father John is listed as a ‘Cottager’ holding 9-acres of land. The 1901 census has Charles and Harriett, along with children Nelly and Arthur, living in Ote Hall Cottages with his occupation noted as ‘Domestic Gardener’. Here at Ote, his talents were recorded in ‘The Gardener’s Chronicle’, 30th September 1905:

“The present gardener, Charles Jones, has had a large share in the modelling of the gardens as they now appear, for on all sides can be seen evidence of his work in the making of flowerbeds and borders and in the planting of fruit trees. Mr Jones is quite an enthusiastic fruit grower and his delight in his well-trained trees was readily apparent…. The lack of extensive glasshouses is no deterrent to Mr Jones in producing supplies of choice fruit and flowers…. The appearance of crops denoted the all-round capability of the man in charge; and that it does not stop at gardening is testified by the many excellent views from photographs taken by his camera which appear from time to time in the gardening press.”

Great Ote Hall and the gardens, which were mostly laid-out by Charles Jones when employed as Head Gardener, c.1893-1905.  Image by kind permission of Great Ote Hall.

From 1900 Jones experimented with photography and produced gold-toned gelatin silver prints of gardens, vegetables, fruits and flowers. He photographed some of his subjects isolated from nature, against neutral or dark backdrops. These works show a clear and natural command for composition and tone.

Windsor Broad Beans and Onion Ailsa Craig by Charles Jones

A skilled photographic printer, the style adopted by Charles Jones features a delicate play on arrangement, light and focus, illustrating an unprecedented level of skill for the time and foreshadows the work of later photographers.

Gypsophila paniculata and Celeriac by Charles Jones

His photography enjoyed success – the earliest use in print appears to be a series of pears for The Gardeners’ Chronicle in 1902, some of which also featured later in Amateur Gardening magazine. The images for Elphick’s seed catalogues date also from this period and some were subsequently used in their catalogues for the next 50 years. The seed company had a bold and innovative marketing strategy, at the centre of which were their catalogues with their brightly coloured covers and distinctive typography. Jones’ photographs greatly enhanced these beautifully designed booklets. Included within the archive are the original etched copper printer’s blocks used to reproduce Jones’ photographs in their catalogues.

The Windsor broad bean with its photographic copper plate and the printed image from 1933 Elphick’s catalogue
Elphick’s Seed Catalogues

In the autumn of 1905 Jones gave up gardening to become a professional photographer and moved to Norwood Villa, North Road in Bourne, Lincolnshire, close to his wife’s family at Dunsby. Here he set up his studio, the 1911 census has his occupation listed as ‘Photographer’ working ‘at Home’. He developed an extensive body of work for use in the gardening press and horticultural ‘image libraries’. The local firm of Charles Sharpe & Co, in Sleaford, purchased many of his photographs, selling them on to various companies for reproduction in their catalogues, these included; John K. King, Yardes’s Seeds and Brown & Sons Ltd in Bristol.

Photographs by Charles Jones acquired by Charles Sharpe & Co, for clients’ seed and plant catalogues; ‘Peas Edwin Becket 1906’, ‘Plant of Cineraria 1904’ and ‘Narcissus Telamonius Plenus 1908’.
‘Ranunculus Double Yellow 1908’, ‘Gladioli Hybrid 1908’ and ‘Narcissus Horsfieldii 1908’, from Charles Sharpe & Co.
‘Narcissus Belflorus 1908’, ‘Pea Sutton’s Pioneer 1910’ and ‘Tulip Double White (Blanche Native) 1908’, from Charles Sharpe & Co.

Another client was the publisher and printer, Blake & MacKenzie of Liverpool, who printed Jones’s photographs in the seed catalogues of numerous companies, including Kers Ltd and also Brown & Sons.

Photographs by Charles Jones; ‘Pear Josephine de Maline 1905’, ‘Guerande Carrot 1906’ and ‘Foxgloves 1906’, from Blake & MacKenzie Ltd.
‘Turnip Snowball on Dish 1904′, Lilium Candicum 1905’ and ‘Carrots Early Gem 1904’, from Blake & MacKenzie Ltd.
‘Tomato Prince of Wales 1905’, ‘Dwarf Beans 1904’ and ‘Turnips Green Globe 1907’, from Blake & MacKenzie Ltd.

From 1905 to the 1930s, his photographs regularly appeared in gardening magazines, notably The Gardener’s Chronicle, Home Gardening and Amateur Gardening.

Charles Jones’ photographs in print: Above (L to R); Currant White Dutch, The Gardeners’ Chronicle, 1907; Carnations, Home Gardening, 1930 and Ranunculus Golden Valley Hybrids, Amateur Gardening, 1937.  Below (L to R); ‘Excelsior’ Runner Bean, Yardes’s Seeds catalogue, Northampton, 1923 and Crimson Globe Beet, Ker’s Ltd catalogue, Liverpool, 1939.

Photographs were used also in gardening books of the time, notably Ward & Locke’s gardening manuals by J Coutts in the 1930s and the Amateur Gardening Annual of 1945.

Jones’ vegetables and ornamental grasses from The Complete Book of Gardening, edited by J Coutts, published by Ward Locke & Co. 1930.
The original gelatin silver print in the collection of the Garden Museum and as used in Amateur Gardening, 1945.

The 1939 pre-World War II Register for England & Wales, has him still living in North Street at No.13 (possibly Norwood Villa) and his occupation noted as ‘Horticultural Photograph[er]’, he would have been aged 73 at the time. Contemporary photographs show No.13 as a three-storey dwelling, on the street and with a shop frontage to one side. Charles Jones appears to have remained in Bourne until his death in 1959.

North Street, Bourne, seen from Market Place c.1910. The ‘X’ denotes No.13, the home and studio of Charles Jones.

In 1981 a trunk of his photographs was purchased at a market in Bermondsey and he was rediscovered by the photographic world. Other horticultural photographers with comparable skills from this time were not so fortunate, with few original prints surviving of their work. Notable ‘lost’ horticultural photographers include: George William Leak of The Floral Farms, Wisbech; John Thurlby of Sleaford, C.W. Teager from Chelsford, S.L. Bastin and Tom Upton, also of Sleaford.  Jones’ photographs now sell at auction for several thousand pounds each and have been exhibited in numerous institutions including the V&A in London, the Museum of Fine Art in San Francisco, the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Musée de Elysée in Lausanne.

The Plant Kingdoms of Charles Jones, a book of his photographs by Sean Sexton and Robert Flynn Johnson, was published in 1998.

A second publication, Charles Jones by Peter Marino with essay by Carrie Springer, was published in 2022 featuring the extensive collection of Jones’ photographs at the Peter Marino Art Foundation in Southampton, New York.

How lucky that in the gift of the Elphick’s archive, some of Jones’ photographs lay in wait!

To purchase a copy of The Elphick’s Archive journal featuring photographs by Charles Jones : Click Here